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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Black Tie Guide - Peter Marshall's Gift To Those That Need To Know More About Formal And Evening Wear

Often I find myself referring to the Black Tie Guide when I have some form of question hanging over a particular customer's request. Just six weeks ago I received a commission from a customer to make him a detachable collar wing tip dinner shirt with marcella bib and french cuffs with a single piece diamond point bow tie and a white tie cumber vest in matching marcella. Honestly, these days such an order is rarefied so I immediately consulted the Black Tie Guide for a refresher on white tie. Years ago this information was even more difficult to attain but thanks to Peter Marshall, the author of The Black Tie Guide, it's a little more accessible.

Peter now enjoys substantial traffic to his website each month with an estimated 100,000 people using his guide as a resource for formal and evening wear. He was kind enough to take time out of his weekend to give our readers a few tips on black tie and a brief synopsis of it's story so far and where it is heading.

You’ve now studied periods and cultures of black tie – can you please tell our readers which culture or nation you think gets black tie the best and what in your eyes is the best period of black tie that you’ve studied?

The originators of black tie are the ones who understand it the best.  With a history steeped in tradition and formality, the British seem much more in tune to the unique role and sublime benefits of male formal wear in general.  This is evident in their approach to black tie which they limit to evening functions (as it should be) and execute with refined minimalism.  Rather than the flashy satin facings and attached wing-collar shirts with pleated fronts favoured by North Americans they generally prefer understated grosgrain trim and low-key turndown collars with Marcella accents.  They trust a well-made kit to speak for itself rather than making it scream for attention.

Traditional black tie as per Roderick Charles - barathea wool dinner suit with grosgrain facings


Lord West tuxedo - American styled formal wear.

As for black tie's best era, I believe the inter-war period was the golden age of evening wear due to the skilful balance of tradition and innovation.  This is when the dinner jacket came into its own as standard evening wear rather than just being an informal offshoot of full dress.  The concurrent rise of midnight-blue suits and warm-weather variations - ivory jackets with cummerbunds, double breasted jackets, soft-front turndown-collar formal shirts - made for an impressive array of options that still respected formal tradition.  The fact that these variations remain relevant to this day speaks volumes about the careful thought put into them by the period’s fashion leaders with their impeccably good taste and equally good tailors.    Conversely, subsequent innovations have been led by corporate marketers and vapid celebrities which is why virtually all of them have ended up in the trashbin of fashion history.

Peter Marshall's favourite period of black tie - the inter-war period showing here a peaked lapel white dinner jacket reserved for the tropics and a midnight blue peaked lapel dinner suit with black silk facings. 

I also very much like the Mad Men era because of the way it bestowed a slim, trim, and youthful appearance on men's suits in general and emphasized a slightly more laid-back yet equally elegant interpretation of black tie in particular.  The latter effect was achieved by expanding the Depression-era informal summer variations - cummerbunds and soft-front shirts - to year-round fashionability.  Similarly, there was a strong emphasis on the swank streamline effect of the shawl collar.

Another inspired era for Peter Marshall is the 60's Rat Pack - Photo source: Photo by Sammy David Jnr

Covering the waist is a bone of contention amongst some younger Australian men – can you explain to them why its important to cover your waist and explain to them what some of the options are?

There's no need to cover your waist . . . as long you remain motionless. However, if you choose to wave hello to a fellow guest, put your arm around your date, or reach into your trouser pockets for any reason then foregoing a waist covering will spoil the entire effect of your outfit.  These actions (among others) pull apart the fronts of your jacket and expose a bright white patch of shirt navel underneath.  This in turn breaks the suit into two visual halves instead of allowing the top and bottom to blend seamlessly together into a black column that emphasize the wearer's height, stature, and commanding presence.  It also looks sloppy: think of it as the formal equivalent of "plumber's crack", the exposed derriere commonly associated with bent-over tradesmen.  Technically speaking, there are two choices of waist covering: cummerbund or evening waistcoat.  However, the cummerbund is likely to be the only practical option because proper waistcoats that button down around the midsection (in order not to cover up the decorated front of the formal shirt) are extremely rare these days.

Particular classic dinner suit looks that Peter Marshall recommends although he wishes to note that the far right Brooks Brothers image reveals the pitfalls of not covering your waist line and shows the white gap that appears below the break of the jacket and above the trouser line when the waist is not covered either with a cummerbund or vest.  Read more here


Can you itemise for us what might be the checklist for a man heading off to a black tie event as to what he might be packing?

If a man truly wants to look his best at a black-tie affair, he will need:

tuxedo of black or midnight blue (or a white dinner jacket and black/midnight blue trousers for hot-weather locales, if desired)
formal shirt 
formal studs and cufflinks 
formal hose 
formal shoes 
formal braces (unless your trousers will remain perfectly positioned for the entire evening without anything more than side tabs)
formal watch (if any)

Can you roughly guide us towards a list of places you think we might reasonably be able to acquire these items readily on the internet?

The Buyer’s Guide section of my web site contains numerous suggestions for mainstream and specialty retailers, including A Suitable Wardrobe which carries some very swank accessories such as silk shoe laces.  Also, the same category on my blog contains reviews tuxedos offered by online tailors for those seeking a middle ground between inexpensive but generic ready-to-wear and customized but expensive local made-to-measure.  

Let’s say I set you a budget of 10,000 USD on your perfect black tie ensemble – can you tell our readers who will make your suit, shirt, shoes, braces, socks, bow tie?

To be honest, spending that much on formal clothing seems like a poor use of money; I’d much rather put it towards an exotic vacation.  A well-fitted, well-made dinner suit will look just as good whether it's from Tom Ford or the tailor around the corner.  At a certain point you're just paying for bragging rights.  

Having said that, if I was forced at gunpoint to spend such an exorbitant amount of money on an evening kit (perish the thought) I'd head straight for Savile Row.  The idea of owning a bespoke dinner suit from Henry Poole & Co. - the historic tailors so closely associated with the original dinner jacket - is extremely tantalizing.  It would be midnight blue and feature a classically English matching evening waistcoat along with understated grosgrain trim.  Then I'd probably head over to Jermyn Street for a made-to-measure Marcella shirt and possibly indulge in a pair of bespoke evening shoes, perhaps from John Lobb.  It would be quite something to end up with an outfit of the same calibre as those sported by the British aristocracy for the past century (minus the stifling 20-ounce fabric, of course).

What do you think the future of black tie and white tie looks like?

White tie has been dying a slow death since World War II and I'd rather see it quietly disappear with its dignity intact than to be forced onto life support by inept attempts to reinvent it for a modern age.  
By all accounts, black tie should be following closely on its progenitor's heels as formal attire made redundant by today's extremely informal standards yet somehow it continues to defy the odds.  Sure, it's not the de facto evening attire that it used to be prior to the 1950s but with over 100,000 visitors checking out my web site each month it's clearly still a going concern for a huge amount of people.  Even more impressive, it has survived endless attempts at reinvention for the past five decades and is and has now largely returned to pre-war form.  For all the jokes about penguin suits and the like, black tie clearly remains unparalleled in its ability to transform a man and an evening.    
What's also interesting is that black tie appears to be returning to its 18th century status the attire of the elite.  As the mainstream continue to pursue the lowest common denominator in all aspects of life, society’s most popular formal occasions - weddings, proms and cruises - are increasingly prone to favouring the casual lounge suit over the traditional tuxedo.  Accordingly, hired formal wear is becoming harder to find, as is mass-produced low-cost off-the-peg versions.  The governing classes that attend glitzy galas, meanwhile, continue to have easy access to premium quality evening kits. They may well become the last bastion of black tie, just as they were with white tie.

What’s one tip you could give Australian men for the current wedding season that’s upon us?

Don't outfit your wedding party in black tie if you're having a daytime ceremony.  I may be the world's greatest champion of evening wear but encouraging people to use it out of its proper context does nothing to enhance its prestige.  Rather, it degrades the noble convention into little more than a gimmick.  And like all other rules of proper black tie, its chronological restriction is not an arbitrary protocol but a well-thought out principal: in broad daylight black suits appear washed out and cast an ashen pall on fair skin.  (Apparently, that’s why black suits are so favoured by undertakers.)  Conversely, ebony suits worn in artificial light take on a much darker hue, making for a more dramatic contrast against the white formal shirt and harmonizing naturally with the night sky outside. 

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